Russia on June 19 warned it would track U.S.-led coalition aircraft in central Syria as “targets” and halted an incident-prevention hotline with Washington after U.S.forces downed a Syrian jet.
Moscow has only once before suspended the hotline, which was established in October 2015 to prevent conflict between the different forces operating in Syrian airspace.
The shootdown incident and Russia’s response further complicate Syria’s six-year war and come as the U.S.-led coalition and allied fighters battle to oust the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from its Syrian bastion Raqqa.
Russia’s foreign ministry accused Washington of failing to use the hotline before downing the plane near Raqqa, and called for a “careful investigation by the U.S. command” into the incident
“Any flying objects, including planes and drones of the international coalition, discovered west of the Euphrates River will be tracked as aerial targets by Russia’s air defenses on and above ground,” Russian
foreign ministry warned.
The Syrian jet was shot down on June 18 evening after regime forces engaged members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance battling with U.S. support against ISIL, in an area close to Raqqa.
F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down the Syrian SU-22 around 7 p.m. as it “dropped bombs near SDF fighters” south of the town of Tabqa, the coalition said in a statement.
It said that several hours earlier, regime forces had attacked the SDF in another town near Tabqa, wounding several and driving the SDF from the town.
The coalition said the Syrian warplane had been shot down “in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces.”
Syria’s army disputed the account, saying its plane was hit while “conducting a mission against the terrorist Islamic State group.”
It warned of “the grave consequences of this flagrant aggression.” Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov called it a “continuation of America’s line to disregard the norms of international law,” adding: “What is this if not an act of aggression?”
The incident was the latest skirmish between the U.S.-led coalition and regime forces in the increasingly tense and crowded space in Syria’s north and east.
The coalition has for months backed SDF forces in their bid to capture Raqqa, an operation in which the regime has not been involved.
The SDF entered Raqqa for the first time earlier this month and now holds four neighborhoods in the east and west of the city.
Damascus has instead turned its focus further east, to the largely ISIL-held oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor, where government forces are besieged in part of the provincial capital.
It is advancing towards the region on three fronts, south of Raqqa, through the Badia desert region in central Syria, and along Syria’s eastern border.
But the advances have created conflict with the U.S.-led coalition, particularly along the Syrian border, where U.S. and other foreign forces are training an anti-ISIL force at the Tanf garrison.
In recent weeks, the coalition has fired on pro-regime ground forces approaching the garrison and shot down a pro-regime armed drone.
The coalition describes these incidents as “force protection” measures and says its primary focus remains targeting ISIL Outside of coalition operations, U.S. forces have only once directly targeted the regime, when Washington launched a barrage of strikes in April against an airbase it said was the launchpad for an alleged chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians.
Yesterday morning, the area where the regime and SDF members clashed was quiet, and the U.S.-backed force was continuing to battle ISIL inside Raqqa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
Government forces seized the town of Rusafa, south of Raqa, a key stop near provincial oil and gas fields, the monitor said.